- Associated Press - Saturday, January 30, 2016

SHREVEPORT, La. (AP) - Data gathered by The Associated Press shows 12 percent of Louisiana’s federal funds “set-aside” to improve water infrastructure go toward administrative costs. While permitted, the use of the monies to fund salaries, travel and other expenses has been criticized by some.

The Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals established the Drinking Water Revolving Loan Fund in 1997 with funds through Environmental Protection Agency capitalization grants. The low-interest loans and technical assistance aim to help water systems comply with federal and state regulations for safe drinking water. The DWRLF allows states to set aside up to 31 percent of money for operating and administrative costs.

State Health Officer Jimmy Guidry said Louisiana has chosen to spend less than the allowed 31 percent in order to keep the majority of the money directly in the fund for communities and improving water system infrastructure.

“We chose to set aside less money for the set-asides so more could go into the fund for the community,” Guidry said. “We’re not short-changing ourselves, though. We do a lot with the money we use in the set-asides.”

In 2014, Louisiana spent $388,415 in set-asides on salaries, travel, benefits and operating costs. The state dedicated another $1,397,226 toward the public water supply supervision program, operator certification program and capacity development program. Money spent on technical assistance and training at more than 300 small water systems cost $252,037, and capacity development activities required an additional $459,317.

“I do think public perception is that the cost of meeting drinking water requirements is getting higher and higher,” Guidry said. “But there’s still a cost in making drinking water safe, and sometimes we take for granted how little we spend.”

Funds set aside for the Safe Drinking Water Program allow DHH officials to monitor and inspect drinking water resources, as well as create engineering plan reviews that allow for new construction and modification of public water systems, according to the DHH website.

Guidry said the state has cumulatively awarded 78 water systems in Louisiana with a total of 140 loans, valued at more than $32 million.

Communities who want access to funds in the DWRLF have to go through an application process. The 12 percent of set-aside funds the state uses can help the communities with building business plans for their water systems or with the technical assistance they need to have their applications approved.

Concerns about the fund “drying up” sprouted from the AP survey of four states - Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Mississippi - by some who felt setting aside so much money for annual administrative costs might adversely affect the longevity of the fund.

Guidry said the fund was created to get states to a place where they could be self-sufficient, without relying on the loan funds, but he wasn’t concerned that the funds would be pulled in the near future.

“The federal government might decide at some point that the program is self-sustaining and pull the funds,” Guidry said. “But it would not be a punishment, it would be because the state is ready. It hasn’t been talked about at this point.”

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This story has been corrected to show name of health officer is Jimmy Guidry, not John Guidry. An AP Member Exchange.

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Information from: The Times, https://www.shreveporttimes.com

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